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California Lawmakers Seek Answers On Governor’s Billion-Dollar Protective Mask And Equipment Deal

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Andrew Nixon/Capradio
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The California Capitol in Sacramento on March 31, 2020.

California lawmakers have some unanswered questions for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and its spending on coronavirus response.

The Legislature is currently out of session, but the Senate and Assembly scheduled hearings to learn more about the more than $1 billion allocated for personal protective equipment and a slew of new programs.

The Senate formed a new bipartisan committee, which held its first hearing Thursday. Members from both parties took turns questioning top administration officials and demanding more transparency, to little avail in some instances.

The Assembly will have its turn Monday when a budget subcommittee convenes.

Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting, vice chairman of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, says he plans to press the officials for more details on the state’s purchasing and distribution of protective equipment.

“The administration has done an admirable job to help get the state through this,” Ting said. “We do have questions on where the money has gone and in what fashion, and I think we the public have every right to know that.”

The Senate hearing, which most members and witnesses attended remotely via video conference, touched on a number of topics, including ramping up testing and hiring additional public health staff.

One notable topic was the $1 billion deal between California and Chinese multinational company BYD for hundreds of millions of protective masks. Multiple lawmakers questioned administration officials about the deal and asked to review the contract.

Christina Curry, chief deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services, reiterated that the administration intended to release the contract at some point, but wanted “assurance the supply is going to be arriving” before doing so.

In an unusual move, the state wired nearly half a billion dollars up front to finalize the deal.

Democratic Sen. Richard Pan pressed for more details on the contract in the near future.

“Since we’re a coequal branch, at least share that privately with the Legislature so we know, because we have to exercise our oversight function,” Pan said.

Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen aired concerns that the masks may not be delivered at all.

Many lawmakers found out about the massive deal from the governor’s appearance on MSNBC’s ‘The Rachel Maddow Show,’ which left some frustrated.

On April 9, Sen. Holly Mitchell, who chairs the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, sent a letter to the administration in response to the proposed deal. She signaled the committee would approve the deal, but demanded more transparency. She requested the administration establish a website within days detailing its inventory of protective equipment and where items had been distributed — “in light of the massive spending commitments.”

The site has not been established.

Copyright 2020 CapRadio

Scott Rodd